Wednesday, January 19, 2011

New Release Review: The Fighter (David O. Russell, 2010)

The Fighter is an above average autobiographical sports feature film from director David O. Russell (Three Kings, 1999), and starring Mark Wahlberg in the central role of Mickey "Irish" Ward, a promising professional welterweight boxer caught in the shadow of his older half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). It also stars Melissa Leo as the brothers' mother Alice, and Amy Adams as Mickey's girlfriend Charlene. Set in Lowell, Massachusetts, the film was  nominated for six Golden Globe awards, picking up wins for Bale and Leo in the supporting performance categories. Darren Aronofksy, who remains credited as an Executive Producer, was originally signed on to direct the film, but he opted out to direct The Wrestler (2008), and then Black Swan (2010) instead.

I was very impressed with David O. Russell's work here, transforming The Fighter into an entertaining yet somewhat predictable sporting biopic that pays close attention to the characters and Ward's turbulent relationship with his family that sadly hinders his ascension into the boxing elite. It also remains a compelling commentary on the hardships of the small-town Massachusetts working class, and the scary impacts of drug addiction. Well made films like The Fighter can be pleasing even if they have been made dozens of times before. But this is all based on a true story, so essentially all of the incredible events portrayed here are true to life. The script is great, the performances are all excellent, and the shot-for-shot replication of the fight sequences is thoroughly realistic and brutal. The gritty cinematography during these sequences was also superb. Russell used the exact same cameras from that era and captured the footage in such a way that it appears just like it would have on the television during the 1990's.

Dicky Eklund, a gaunt and mentally affected crack addict, is consistently late to his brothers' scheduled training sessions and often arrives intoxicated. Dicky, once the pride of the Lowell working class, remains popular amongst the locals and adored by his mother and sisters (who seem to ignore his drug problem). Dicky is clinging to a brief moment of fame, having once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard, despite alternative claims that he slipped. While still physically fit, his moment has passed and he is now trying to experience the success that was denied him, through his equally talented younger brother. He is so disillusioned from his drug habits that not only does he fail to realize the negative impact he has on his brothers' career, but he believes a team of HBO filmmakers are following him around and documenting his comeback to professional boxing. They are actually capturing the effects of crack addiction, which is horrifyingly portrayed on free-to-air television, much to the unexpected embarrassment of Dicky. This is a very prominent arc for the first half of the film, until Dicky is jailed for a series of ever-worsening felonies. Embarrassed by a humiliating loss experienced because of false opponent statistics provided by the promoters and his brother's poor advice, Mickey lays low and all-but quits boxing. After his brother is jailed, and inspired by his new girlfriend, Charline, Mickey finds new management and training, and the second half of the film chronicles Mickey's rise to success, culminating in his title fight in London.

The quartet of inspired performances are all outstanding. While overshadowed by the other flashy Oscar-baiting performances, Wahlberg is very solid in the title role. He plays Mickey Ward as reserved and low-key, and really holds the film together. Christian Bale, thoroughly deserving of his Golden Globe victory, actually starts out very irritating. Bale is over-the-top and chews up the scenery but I really liked him in the latter half when Dicky is released from prison. He is very very good. Having once again lost a lot of weight to portray a role, Bale impressively captures Dicky's mannerisms and Boston accent. Many would claim that Bale is one of the most dedicated 'Method' actors in Hollywood, but Mark Wahlberg's story to be prepared for this role is also astonishing. Wahlberg elected to star in the film due to his personal friendship with Ward, with both men being brought up amongst large working-class families in Massachusetts. In preparation for the role, Wahlberg underwent a strict bodybuilding exercise regimen, dedicating four years of training to obtain the physique to convincingly portray Ward. He apparently even took real punches throughout filming, and refused to use a stunt double, to increase the films' realism. The Ward brothers reportedly even moved into Wahlberg's home during pre-production. That is impressive dedication. Melissa Leo's recognition at the Globes is also warranted, though I really thought it would go to Amy Adams, long one of my favorite actresses. She delivers a tough Oscar-calibre performance as Mickey's bartender girlfriend, who makes him realize the toxic influence his family has on him and supports him through a transition into a more stable management relationship.

The Fighter is certainly much better than I expected, but I still can't shake it's predictable conformity to the genre. The dedication behind the incredible performances and the accurate recapturing of these character's lives makes this much better than average, however. It's a gritty, grueling and tragic struggle that presents some devastating moments in Ward's life, and a heartbreaking loyalty to family. It is because of what you witness throughout, that the final fight is actually rousing, inspiring entertainment.

My Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

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